Chris Matthews is not known as a particularly right-wing television talk-show host nor, by the standards of the profession, a particularly foolish one. NBC considers him to be such an asset, it gave him his own Sunday program, in addition to the nightly cable shoutfest Hardball.
Within MSNBC, Matthews represents the "center" between the right-wing Tucker Carlson and the taken-for-a-liberal Keith Olbermann. It's worth taking a closer look, therefore, at just what passes for classy, centrist and sane in today's Fox-driven cable cosmos.
Like anyone who spends much time on live TV, Chris Matthews tends to say a lot of silly things. (I did too during the two years I was so employed.) But patterns and passions tell a tale, and those exhibited by Matthews are revealing. Like Elvis, Matthews can't help falling in love. And also like the King--who developed a thing for both Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover late in life--the object of Matthews's affection is invariably a tough-talking, self-styled Republican macho-man. And when he gets going on one of these guys, his style of punditry owes more to, say, Tiger Beat or Teen People than the Trilateral Commission.
Going back to 9/11, Matthews found himself blown away not by Bush's political or military response but by his ability to throw a baseball. He compared the man to--I kid you not--Ernest Hemingway. "There are some things you can't fake," he explained breathlessly. "Either you can throw a strike from sixty feet or you can't. Either you can rise to the occasion on the mound at Yankee Stadium with 56,000 people watching or you can't. On Tuesday night, George W. Bush hit the strike zone in the House that Ruth Built.... This is about knowing what to do at the moment you have to do it--and then doing it. It's about that 'grace under pressure' that Hemingway gave as his very definition of courage."
And remember that now-infamous Mission Accomplished moment? True, Matthews did not join his guest G. Gordon Liddy in admiring--still not kidding--the President's pretend penis, but he was no less focused on Bush's fashion statements. "He looks great in a military uniform. He looks great in that cowboy costume he wears when he goes West," he cooed. "We're proud of our President. Americans love having a guy as President, a guy who has a little swagger, who's physical, who's not a complicated guy like Clinton.... Women like a guy who's President. Check it out."
Matthews's man-crush on Bush continued longer than that of most of the mainstream media, leading him, for instance, to assert that "everybody sort of likes the President, except for the real whack-jobs," at a moment when the percentage of Americans telling New York Times/CBS pollsters that they "liked" Bush had fallen to 37 percent.
But nobody, save Fred Barnes, thinks Bush is cool anymore, and so Matthews has had to go cruising for a new crush. For a while it looked as if he and John McCain would hook up. "A lot of people," he explained coyly, naming no names, "like the cut of John McCain's jib, his independence, his maverick reputation." This led Matthews to declare the election all but over, announcing that as far as he was concerned, McCain "deserves the presidency."
This was just a warmup, however, for Chris's latest flame: the "perfect candidate"--the one who "looks like a President," who "acts and talks like a President," who "rises to the occasion" and is "the one tough cop who was standing on the beat when we got hit last time and stood up and took it," and who, to top it all off, got "that pee smell out of that subway." Say one thing about Chris Matthews, once he switches loyalties, he's really loyal. He got so mad at that meanie Hillary Clinton for wanting to be President against his new love, Rudy G, he gave a big fat warning to her homies about her husband. Again, I promise I'm not kidding. When Hillary staffer Ann Lewis showed up on Hardball, she was instructed three times by its host that Bill Clinton had "better watch it." And when former DNC chair Terry McAuliffe came on to promote his book, Matthews told him six times that Clinton had better "behave himself," lest his "social life" become a "distraction."
Just what so worried Matthews could only be inferred, as he was, like, too shy to say what he really meant. It's possible his concern was sartorial in nature, as the candidates' clothing has proven a Matthews obsession in presidential elections past. In 1999, for instance, he grew obsessed with Al Gore's suit buttons. "What could that possibly be saying to women voters, three buttons?" he asked a guest. "Is there some hidden Freudian deal here or what? I don't know, I mean, Navy guys used to have buttons on their pants." Indeed, Matthews thought the button development so significant, he returned to it five nights in a row.
Certainly Matthews couldn't have meant Bill Clinton's sex life. First off, it's Hillary who's running this time. And when it comes to screwing around while in office, well, the ex-President is the proverbial pisher compared with Mr. Pee Smell Out of the Subway. While serving as Mayor of New York, Rudy moved in with a couple of gay guys to facilitate cheating on his wife, and let the mother of his children know he wanted a divorce by holding a press conference. This led Mrs. Giuliani (Donna Hanover) to complain about yet another affair he'd apparently conducted with a member of his staff and to seek a restraining order to keep his new girlfriend (now wife) out of Gracie Mansion.
One would think, as my colleague at Media Matters Jamison Foser has so sagely noted, "On the distraction scale, that would have to rate pretty darn high."
Can this romance be saved? Too early to tell, but perhaps Rudy shouldn't be picking out silverware patterns just yet. The race is still wide open. Newt's got that handsome head of hair, and Fred Thompson, well, the guy is practically George Clooney--for a Republican. And hey, let's not forget Mitt Romney. He may not be a credible conservative or even (really) a Christian, but according to Chris, "He's got a great chin, I've noticed."